Reno scape

Railroad tracks. Caughlin Ranch. East Fourth Street. Industrial Sparks. A UNR geographer studies the human-made landmarks that make up our city’s identity

Photo By David Robert

Want to understand the city you live in? Sure you do. After all, where you live in part defines who you are. To know thyself, know thy home turf. The secret pulses that make it tick. The mindsets of its people. How it came to look the way it does. What it will look like years from now. And simply why it feels the way it does to live there—with the mix of aspirations and joyful delusions, grievances and creeping paranoia inherent in urban life in the 2000s.

All this is revealed in hi-res, megapixel clarity by bringing your city’s vernacular landscape into focus.

That’s a term unfamiliar to most people outside the fields of geography or landscape history. The vernacular landscape is human-made. Not rivers and deserts, ranges and vales, but the bisecting railroad tracks and vanishing ranches, pillared courthouses and pennant-festooned used car lots, cookie-cutter subdivisions with blandly named streets, and warrens of nameless alleyways where you can rendezvous at 1:13 a.m. with some guy you know only as Jerome peddling hits of “E.”

Photo By David Robert

“When you’re dialed into the vernacular landscape of a city, you look at the permanent features, the everyday stuff that most people just drive past without contemplating, and you try to figure out how it comes together, in what sort of sequence,” explains Paul Starrs, an associate professor of geography at the University of Nevada, Reno. Starr is a widely published scholar who studies and writes about the vernacular landscape, among a slew of other interests.

“The vernacular landscape reveals the soul of a place, its beauty marks and dimples, and how it’s aged,” Starrs says. “For us, our hair gets punked out with maybe a little bit of gray coming in on the edges. The same thing happens with a city and its street grid.”

The vernacular landscape geographer scrutinizes a trailer park with the same relish another geographer would a topo map. The pioneer of this sub-specialty (also known as reading the “cultural landscape") was John Brinckerhoff Jackson. Born in 1913, a war hero and Harvard alum, he taught sporadically at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, but also found time to be a rancher, magazine editor and common laborer.

Jackson was passionate as a poet about his work. An excerpt from his 1996 obituary in the New York Times: “For nearly 50 years he roamed the nation, surveying field and forest but also registering the change wrought by human beings, regarding it as a kind of language. For Mr. Jackson, known as Brinck, front lawns and strip malls cried out for interpretation, an analysis of the political and cultural forces that shaped them.”

Photo By David Robert

Yes, Jackson was a serious fellow. An reader’s review of Jackson’s book, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (Yale, 1986), said, in part: “I was attracted by the title of this book; there’s so much to be learned by observing the suburban or rural landscape, which most of us drive through without really noticing or reflecting upon it. Someday a wonderful book will be written on this topic, but this is not it.”

Fortunately, in Reno, we have Paul Starrs, who is the perfect VL guide for the Biggest Little City. Starrs, 46, is a rara avis in academia: Capable of writing and speaking, pedantically or prosaically. He’s won even more awards for teaching than for research, a pairing few academics can match. He’s high-energy, thoughtful and funny, a big man with a big voice, big heart and big sense of humor. And he has closely studied the vernacular landscape of our schizophrenic metropolis on the Truckee. Starrs has stellar credentials in geography and can explain the key features to the rest of us, zeroing in on the most prominent traits of Reno’s psycho-cultural panorama.

One recent autumn morning during a gap in classes, faculty meetings, etc., Starrs sat down at the bustling Record Street Café across East Ninth Street from UNR’s main campus, imbibed a behemoth cup of latte, and spelled out to this reporter’s tape recorder 20 chief features of Reno’s vernacular landscape.

At the end of this article is Starrs’ summation of Reno. Don’t peek. Maybe it will surprise you.

Photo By David Robert

1 The railroad tracks downtown. Not only because commuters clunk over them, but because they are a visible reminder of about 150 years of Reno history. What can be more vernacular than the grid pattern that a town is laid out on? It’s the skeleton. It’s primordial. It defines how the city has come together and how pieces have been added.

The U.S. government gave the railroads land on which to lay tracks, but the real payment for building the railroad was land, in alternate sections, 10 miles on either side of the tracks. That’s why northern Nevada has a great checkerboard pattern of land ownership. The railroads also platted downtown streets and sold land and water rights.

Today, Reno’s biggest civic issue is whether to build a trench to lower tracks through downtown. The tracks are a connecting thread to Reno’s birth but very much part of the present. The town that rose around them is wrestling with their setting. But that’s an odd thing to do, as if someone were suddenly to take umbrage at having a bellybutton. The tracks are our umbilical. Like people, cities can’t escape their pasts.

2 The waterscape. Not just the Truckee River, but all the canals, ditches and weirs where a dam diverts water from the river, such as at the Arlington Avenue Bridge. You have the Orr Ditch, Highline Ditch, Steamboat Ditch, Boynton Slough, all the ditches running past Verdi, the ditch system running off the Truckee that in theory is supposed to be freshening and regenerating Virginia Lake. Most of the ditches are relic features now, but they are a reminder of how dependent this area is on water and the manipulation of water.

Photo By David Robert

The waterscape says we live in the desert and that agriculture was an incredibly important part of early life in Reno, and we abandoned that at great cost. We stop paying attention to water, and pretty soon we have planners saying, “Oh, we don’t have a water problem in Reno. We figure we’ve got plenty of water until, say, 2030.”

As an adjunct, pockets of little farms and ranches remain, such as those along Valley Road, past the university farm (a hidden gem), and before the little warehouse district near the top of the hill. These operations are holdouts.

3 East Fourth Street. This was part of the old U.S. 40, the old Lincoln Highway, the transcontinental highway. For at least 80 years it was the lifeline for Reno’s economy, making the town a destination resort for gambling and divorces, bringing people all the way across the country, where Reno was the last stop before they pitched up over the horror of Donner Pass: a traumatic trip for motorists.East Fourth Street, with its oft-overlooked old brownstones, serves three functions today. The old motels offer weekly or monthly rooms, basically keeping the otherwise homeless people off the streets and making Reno relatively palatable for tourists. There is chic appeal from music clubs, bars, restaurants and other businesses trying to revitalize the area. Then there is what J. B. Jackson called “the stranger’s path": a sordid, or at least soiled, area that every city has (Reno has more than one). East Fourth is known for strip clubs and underground activity. No coincidence that a police substation was put nearby.

A city is a very complicated creature and needs all these things. If you don’t have them, what you end up with is some sort of sanitized-for-your-protection suburban enclave, a gated community with no soul. Those kinds of antiseptic settings can backfire, and then you have to worry about Columbine High-type tragedies erupting from the sterility.

Photo By David Robert

4 The Truckee Meadows themselves. This is where water debouches from Thomas Creek and the other creeks that come down from the Carson Range. The meadows show what Reno used to be like: ranches. The flip side that the meadows tell is what we’re becoming: one historic ranch after another turned into subdivisions and commercial developments. The meadows are green land supporting the reverse migration from overpopulated, overpriced California. In the meadows, equity migrants look to erect their starter castles (including horses and moats), a theme from Reno to Jacks Valley in Douglas County.

5 Planned communities. These are quasi-gated communities: behind a gate with no guard at it. The local granddaddy is Caughlin Ranch. If you haven’t been to the outskirts of Reno or Sparks in a few years, you will encounter new roads and communities you never knew existed, accompanied by golf courses and strip plazas. You’ll need to get a new area map: Some of us find ourselves making quarterly trips to AAA just to keep up, and leave shaking our heads, grasping newly revised maps by the handful. Not even the county offices can keep up.

Planned communities are a legacy of people’s unwillingness to live in diverse communities. They’re a reflection of some people’s desire to build walls and live with people who are exactly like them, obeying CCRs—conditions, covenants and restrictions—on how they must maintain homes, yards and streets.

6 The North Valleys. The spiritual reverse of Caughlin Ranch. If the planned communities are colonized by people whose desire is to segregate themselves and find comfort in sameness, then people go and live in Palomino Valley—or Panther Valley or Lemmon Valley or any of the north valleys—because they want to be left alone. If they want to have two in-line-six engine blocks in their front yard, fine. Who’s to say no? It’s the essence of what geographer Roger Barnett once called “the libertarian suburb.” These places on the outskirts of a city exist because people don’t want to be messed with. If a sheriff’s deputy stops by, the resident has a pair of rottweilers to discourage him. It’s someplace where you don’t necessarily want to have the census-enumerator’s job, but where your neighbors are often as friendly, if ornery, as the crowd at Cheers.

Photo By David Robert

7 Industrial Sparks. Now there’s an incredibly exciting place! It has an economy going. It’s made its peace with the railroad and with not being incredibly cool real estate. It dedicates itself to business and moneymaking. What are the commodities in Sparks? An urban workforce, reasonably well-educated. A place that’s easy to get around with lots of space. A place where it’s easy to set up a business. There are plenty of businesses in partial development or waiting to join in. It all comes together and makes a great working landscape.

8 Northeast Reno/Wells Avenue. The last real ethnic enclave in town. We don’t have Irish or Italian neighborhoods anymore, except in relic form. This is as close to a barrio as Reno gets. And if you go south on Sutro and wind west, you’ll link up with Wells Avenue, a fertile bed for up-and-coming, Latino-owned specialty businesses. Buy-in costs are low. Wells Avenue offers easy parking, easy access, minimal police hassle. You can park in front of a business to send your money order to Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador without having to park in a dark garage.

9 Meadowood Mall. A big magnet for teen folk, who always complain there’s little to do here. This largest of area malls is a great place for people who can’t drive yet; they can get dropped off and hang out. Meadowood is fading slowly because of all the other retail now in south Reno. The energy point of Reno is the intersection of South Virginia Street and South McCarran Boulevard. Insanely busy. A difficult place to get through.

10 The three South Virginia Street freeway exits off U.S. 395. It’s the road that never ends but isn’t quite sure where it begins, with the concrete of the U.S. 395 freeway wound round it like the doctor’s caduceus. South Virginia Street, almost to the point where the freeway ends at the Mount Rose Highway junction, is among the most spectacular strip malls you can find in the American West. It’s just business development, one unit wide, that goes for nine, 10 miles. It’s a great feature that people don’t think about. But for specialized needs—spas, a picture frame, a family restaurant, building supplies—they know all about it.

Photo By David Robert

On the darker side: You may think that East Fourth Street is shady, but if you really looked into it, you’d discover there is far more skanky stuff going on down South Virginia. There are a whole bunch of not-quite-dead motels. Think about that! It’s a great commercial zone.

11 The casino district. Here’s what journalist and landscape historian Grady Clay has called an “epitome district.” Many cities don’t have a core activity, but Reno does. Here’s the place to concentrate the tourists, show them a good time, and with grace and fun extract their funds. They can jaywalk with impunity, so long as they don’t get run over. A tourist ghetto, but like many an epitome district, one with a well-worked-out character and a lot of “minders” who keep watch o’er the flocks.

12 Verdi. The core of Reno exceptionalism. Where people who don’t want to be Renoites go. Verdi is home of our cherished radical iconoclast, the Everyman, Cory Farley. Virginia City is the same sort of place. People move to Verdi so they can live life on their own terms, but without the gusty dust and the 30.06 blow-by that you risk in the north valleys.

Verdi’s being eliminated bit by bit. Reno has done a Lady Pac-Man and annexed the eastern portion. Verdi’s being gobbled up by the great machines of the city of Reno, sucked into the gears like Charlie Chaplin being eaten up by the engines in Modern Times.

Photo By David Robert

13 The 40 golf courses. In the first half of the 20th century, the Reno area had one golf course: the Washoe County Golf Course. Now the greater area has about 40 courses in search of golfers. What’s wrong with this concept? Here’s Reno, a working-class city, trying to get more upscale, capitalizing on a lot of retirement income. But, you golf in the dead of winter here, you better have your parka, crampons against the wind and snow, and not be playing with white balls. The good side is that when you hit a ball, the wind assist will roll it a country mile.

These golf courses are an incredible diagnostic of what Reno thinks it’s going to become: an upscale place with a lot of amenities. It says this is a city of big dreams. The whole idea of the golf courses—and the development in the Truckee Meadows—is, “Build this and people will come.”

14 The Mount Rose Highway. An incredible arterial, appropriately precipitous, that separates the Incline people from the Reno people. There are little pockets of way-rich people branching off the highway, bit by bit, as in Montreux, Galena Forest Estates and ArrowCreek. But Incline still is the cock of the walk. Treacherous driving separates the alpine lake from the valley. Don’t ever doubt that people in Incline like the separation. People who live at Tahoe have been known to refer to Reno dismissively as “Drano.” The city’s held to be a kind of repository of vice, and any detritus at the lake drains down, eddying about the city. Think of the 2001 movie The Deep End and the knocks that Reno took in it!

15 Cowtown. Even with old ranches being turned into subdivisions, you still are within 10 minutes of seeing cattle somewhere in Reno. You can drive down to the south Truckee Meadows. It’s fading, but we still are a cow town to some degree. The Reno Rodeo still is a big special event at the Livestock Events Center.

Photo By David Robert

16 Virginia Lake. Created by Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the lake is a magnet for walkers, joggers, geese and a certain number of homeless wanderers. It’s a pull. People who work in the casinos or along Plumb Lane or Moana Lane go there to walk, roller-blade or push a stroller. The lake says that we still want a central place to gather, visit and have some kind of community. If we can’t have it in our suburban enclave, with no sidewalks on which to push a stroller, you can go to Virginia Lake.

17 The downtown arch. Something for the postcards. We’ve kept the same logo—"The Biggest Little City in the World"—in the different arches over the years. We haven’t come up with any better slogan. But the arches multiply (there’ve been five over the decades) or move (one’s in Willits, Calif.), and the message remains the same.

18 The downtown balls. One wag (in his cups) is said to have eyeballed the skyline and described Reno as “the littlest city with the biggest balls in the world.” It was in reference to the ball over the National Bowling Stadium and the nearby orb of the Silver Legacy that holds “Sam Fairchild’s” mining rig—except Fairchild never existed. The balls say, “If you build something big, that’s enough.” Aesthetics be damned. It speaks to the degree to which somebody in Reno gets a harebrained idea—such as, “They’re making money on Imax theaters in name-another-city, maybe we should have one! So let’s just add it into the plans for the bowling stadium.”

There is an interesting line in Reno between optimism and harebrained ideas. Where is that line? We don’t know—but it’s real easy to see when we’ve crossed it.

Photo By David Robert

19 The three cinema multiplexes. These are at Park Lane Mall, in downtown Reno along the river and in downtown Sparks. They’re like the 40 golf courses. Our city fathers and mothers are very much like television show producers. You have one good reality show or evening trivia-game show, and I can guarantee that in two years you’ll have 22 more exactly like it. How many crime-scene-investigation shows are going right now? Stressed-doctor shows? Or chic-young-lawyer dramas?

Reno’s the same way. Nothing succeeds like excess. We build one theater, OK, that one worked. Let’s build another!

20 Windy Hill. Every city needs someplace, desperately, where you can get a vantage point on reality. Just imagine if there were good roads where people could get up Rattlesnake Mountain. That would be the E-ticket! Sit up there in the flight path of Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Probably more people have been deflowered on Windy Hill than any other place in the northern Nevada landscape, except for maybe the Mustang Ranch.

Here’s what Starrs says that these prime features of Reno’s vernacular landscape say about the city’s identity:

“I’d spin off from ‘The Biggest Little City in the World.’ If you look at the identity of Reno in the past 20 years, it’s a little city that’s trying really hard. To be what? That’s where the divergence occurs.

“According to the casino district, the aim’s to make a huge economic success out of the casinos. According to the townspeople of Reno, the goal’s making the community a livable place. According to the equity migrants coming in, they’d like someplace with the amenities they used to have in Southern California or the San Francisco Bay area or wherever they’ve come from.

“Long-timers, maybe a scant 20 percent of the city’s population, want the old town back. And there’s a new and excited business community that is high-tech and forward-looking, which wants the city to be about something other than gaming. In all this, no one’s wholly happy, and there’s no plurality, so always the vote is split.

“The whole tension right now is between these constituencies, each of which wants something slightly different, and none of which really has the least inkling of how to talk to the others. You look at the city councils or the county commissioners, and realize they’re in exactly the same quandary. Each of them says, ‘We’ll do this for our people.’ Who, though, are those people?

“City leaders always want to get in and put a spin on a place. But what doesn’t lie is the vernacular landscape. I’ve always argued that if Reno wants to be true to itself, what it should do is pick out elements of the vernacular landscape and say, ‘This is who we are. We’re this combination of factors.’ Let’s rally around some feature that we can agree is a good thing, a lasting thing, something authentic and historic, not tacky, trite, and truthless.

“The way I see it, we’re an old railroad town that’s made good. How about that for a motto?"